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Ohio Lawmakers Reconsider Requiring Drug Tests for Those Getting Public Benefits

photo of Ohio Statehouse

After several months of no movement, there’s new committee activity on a bill that would require some people applying for unemployment benefits to submit to drug tests.  

The bill would set up a two-year pilot program in Butler, Crawford and Darke counties to screen applicants for jobless benefits. If the screening suggests a substance-abuse problem, the applicant would have to submit to a drug test before receiving cash assistance.

Republican Rep. Tim Schaffer of Lancaster has proposed testing for state-paid benefits before – and he says this one is targeted to reach Ohioans who need help.

“These are families who are suffering and they’re under the radar screen. Nobody knows about it. And presumably – and this is another part of the legislation – the concern is that state taxpayer money is being used then to support the illegal drug habit of that head of household who makes application for Ohio Works First. And the kids, the dependents in the family are getting zero money from the taxpayer.”

Too much, too soon?
The bill had two hearings last year, and is being heard in committee again. And this time opponents of the bill are getting their chance to weigh in. They included the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

This bill would actually refer people to free treatment. How is that punitive?

Gary Daniels with the ACLU said people who were fired for drug use already are denied benefits. Republican Rep. Margaret Conditt of Hamilton asked him about his claim that it’s premature to pass a law when there’s no idea how many people might be affected by it.

“It is a pilot study, and if it were actually run more like a clinical trial with the right assessments and privacy and all of that, would we not gather some useful data out of this experiment?”

They have to jump through this fiery hoop.

A look at other states
Daniels said several other states have enacted similar laws – with similar results.

“I don’t think that this particular state that we’re in will reveal anything that those other 13 states haven’t found already – and that is, that the people who get government benefits do not use illegal drugs in any greater numbers than anybody else.”

Tara Britton with the Center for Community Solutions also testified against the bill – saying it’s a punitive approach to addiction treatment and will only worsen problems faced by addicts and their families. That brought this question, again from Rep. Conditt: “This bill would actually refer people to free treatment. How is that punitive?”

Not enough resources
Britton said not only are there not enough spaces in drug-treatment programs as it is, but that this could keep people from approaching them in the first place.

“Just putting up that roadblock at the very front – knowing that, going in, you may be subject to a drug- test based on a screening – is enough to discourage someone from coming in the door in the first place.”

And that’s a big concern for Democratic Rep. Janine Boyd of Cleveland Heights, who’s also on the committee hearing that bill.

“This is just another loophole. And to me, it’s like a loop that’s on fire. And they have to jump through this fiery hoop.”

Trouble for more than addicts?
And Boyd says it’s not just that addicts may turn away because of fear of being tested.

“It surprises me that my Republican friends, who really, their platform is centered around smaller government, would want to do something like this, when in fact there are already non-profits out there, workforce development programs, great programs with great long-term outcomes that already do this. We’re really – I don’t think we’re the ones to do this.”

Schaffer says he and his cosponsor created the bill after talking with police, job and family services agency directors and others. But Boyd says she’s concerned that people who would be applying for benefits and could be subject to testing were not consulted.

Schaffer says he’s met with Democratic Rep. Stephanie Howse of Cleveland about getting input from recipients and case workers in Cleveland. And Boyd says she hopes that feedback will lead to some changes in the bill.

Karen is a lifelong Ohioan who has served as news director at WCBE-FM, assignment editor/overnight anchor at WBNS-TV, and afternoon drive anchor/assignment editor in WTAM-AM in Cleveland. In addition to her daily reporting for Ohio’s public radio stations, she’s reported for NPR, the BBC, ABC Radio News and other news outlets. She hosts and produces the Statehouse News Bureau’s weekly TV show “The State of Ohio”, which airs on PBS stations statewide. She’s also a frequent guest on WOSU TV’s “Columbus on the Record”, a regular panelist on “The Sound of Ideas” on ideastream in Cleveland, appeared on the inaugural edition of “Face the State” on WBNS-TV and occasionally reports for “PBS Newshour”. She’s often called to moderate debates, including the Columbus Metropolitan Club’s Issue 3/legal marijuana debate and its pre-primary mayoral debate, and the City Club of Cleveland’s US Senate debate in 2012.